Walking 450 miles to honor husband’s memory

jennifer and michael popper
Jennifer and Michael Popper pose during their hiking trip to Machu Pichu in June 2016.

Two summers from now, Jennifer Popper plans to set out from Nomahegan Park in Cranford, New Jersey, and walk close to 450 miles along the East Coast Greenway to Gouldsboro, Maine. It’s a remarkable goal — “I may be crazy,” Popper laughs — but a fitting tribute to her husband, Michael Popper, who died last summer during a kayak accident in which Jennifer nearly died as well.

“I want to honor Michael in a big way,” she says. “He and I loved biking, and especially hiking, and nature. It was so ingrained in him to be in nature and to honor the environment.”

Ask Popper about the June 2016 accident and she may tell you to Google Maine, kayak, and Popper and read the news accounts for yourself. The story is indeed well documented — how the Poppers set out on a sunny afternoon from the village of Corea, Maine, to cross the Gouldsboro Bay with a guide, Ed Brackett. A sudden storm with high seas knocked them out of their kayaks and, despite wearing life jackets, the two men perished. Jennifer survived by keeping herself halfway out of the cold water by clinging to her overturned kayak and tying her wrist to a line attached to the boat. A lobster boat, sent out by Brackett’s wife to search for the three, rescued her that evening. Officials say they can’t recall anyone surviving as long as she did — about five hours — in Maine’s chilly waters.

To move forward, Popper is focusing on the remarkable man she married 15 years ago, after meeting him while looking for a summer rental on the Jersey Shore with a group of friends. Michael had a place and needed people to rent it with him. Romance and a tight group of friends grew from those annual weeks at the shore. Five friends from the beach house joined the Poppers last June to hike Peru’s Inca trail to Machu Picchu, just weeks before the kayak accident.

Michael Popper was a civil engineer but his heart was always in environmental projects, his wife says. He had a big heart: For the last eight years, he played Santa for their neighborhood, Netherwood Heights, riding on a Plainfield fire truck and handing out presents to the kids (slipped to him by their parents).

Donate to East Coast Greenway in Michael Popper's honor

Jennifer Popper works as the research director at TV Guide magazine in New York City. Her base for the 2018 walk begins with her daily five miles of walking, including to and from the commuter train in Plainfield, NJ, and to her Rockefeller Center office. She works with a personal trainer a few days a week, and she’ll begin building up her mileage.

She’s had great support this last year from friends and neighbors, many of whom have offered to walk parts of her East Coast Greenway journey with her. She welcomes their company, knowing that some stretches of the route will put her on roads and through busy urban areas. She’ll end the walk in Gouldsboro, Maine, close to where she and Michael rented a vacation house annually and the closest town to their kayak accident.

Popper is also using her walk to raise funds for the East Coast Greenway and the FreeWalkers, a distance-walking organization; the couple participated in a few of their events.

“We were married for 15 years, which is why I hope to raise $15,000 to support two charities that support the environment and a healthy lifestyle,” she says. Donations to either organization can be made here: https://www.justgive.org/MichaelPopper

Her end goal of revisiting Maine and remembering Michael will keep Popper focused during her walk. She knows he would respect her ambitious undertaking. “We did a lot of hiking and walking, lots of things outdoors, year round,” she says. “We were just geeks together.”   

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